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For the 45 million people living in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) there are few livelihood opportunities beyond the exploitation of forest resources. Widespread poverty, regular food insecurity, post-conflict instability, and rampant unemployment are everyday struggles shoving rural dwellers to unsustainably use their country’s vast natural capital, which should be in principle the driving force for their development and wellbeing.

This conflicting reality represents a real threat to Africa’s most important tropical rainforest, the Congo Basin. This unique ecosystem, 60 percent of which is found in DRC, contributes to biodiversity conservation, carbon storage and mitigates the effects of climate change. And while it remains largely untouched, it is slowly gnawed away by a growing population and demand for natural resources and farmland.

In an attempt to address these issues, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is working with the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) and Resources and Synergies Development (R&SD) to create tree plantations in previously deforested areas in northern DRC’s Tshopo province. These plantations will produce biomass to supply electricity to the neighboring communities, create new business opportunities and provide much needed jobs for local people.

“This initiative is a win-win for the population and the environment,” says Nils Bourland, senior scientist at the RMCA. “We are supporting the local economy by using degraded land to meet the energy demand and reduce pressure on the surrounding primary forests.”

“We started by collecting seeds, and then growing the trees in a nursery in 2017. The first transplantation took place in 2018”, explains Martin Van Hulle, who leads the plantations project for R&SD. He points out that until now 30 hectares have been planted, or around 80,000 trees, but the team’s expectation is that from 2019 onwards they can plant around 300 hectares a year. “We have already trained local workers and developed a functioning system, so we are ready to scale up.”

The land used for these plantations mostly belongs to the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) and in colonial times it was used for tropical crop plantations. “In the mid-century this was a booming site that produced rubber, coffee, banana, and palm oil, among others,” says Bourland. “However, both land and former plantations are no longer productive, and it has been unexploited for decades.” In line with INERA’s plan to rehabilitate those lands, this makes it the perfect place for biomass production, he argues.

This activity is part of the FORETS project, a 27-million-euro initiative funded by the European Union to promote the integrated development of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve. Its objective is to support the sustainable use of biodiversity by creating livelihood opportunities in an area of about 400,000 hectares.

The plantations depend on natural rain cycles, which makes them vulnerable to unpredictable weather.

   The plantations depend on natural rain cycles, which makes them vulnerable to unpredictable weather. Ahtziri Gonzalez/CIFOR


DRC has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world, and only 1 percent of rural households has access to electricity. Most families instead rely on firewood and charcoal to meet their domestic energy needs.

“Makala, as charcoal is locally known, is basically used by all rural households for cooking,” explains Bourland. “The problem is that this is putting a huge pressure on forests.” In fact, the World Bank estimates that around 84 percent of all harvested wood in the country is used for domestic energy production, and demand is only expected to increase as population grows.

While access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all is on top of the international development agenda, and one of the Sustainable Development Goals, this is by no means an easy enterprise in DRC. Due to poor infrastructure and widespread mismanagement of public services, the best way forward is through local solutions.

“For 18 months we carried out diverse studies to determine the best alternative to supply electricity in this landscape,” says Bourland. “The outcomes showed that biomass is the most efficient, and viable option to meet the local energy needs.” The studies in question show how other energy sources, such as wind power or hydroelectricity, would not be feasible in this context. And while solar panels could provide a good supplementary energy alternative, good quality products in the region are scarce. What’s more, high humidity and intense rainfall limit the lifespan of panels, and Yangambi’s remote location creates a Gargantuan obstacle of repairs.

Other advantages of biomass, according to the scientists, include the relatively low initial investment, and the widespread availability of raw material in Yangambi. “There are some abandoned industrial rubber and palm plantations that we are planning to use to start producing energy this year”, adds Bourland. “Then, our plantations will be ready to take over with the first harvests in 2025 or 2026.”

Most of the trees planted are acacias (Acacia auriculiformis ), a fast-growing species that has an outstanding calorific value. “It has been proved very efficient for biomass projects all over the world,” says Bourland. The rest of the trees are local species that also have potential for energy production, such as flat-crown trees (Albizia adianthifolia), and ilomba (Pycnanthus angolensis). Some of those species could potentially also be used for timber production.

Biomass generation will take place in Yangambi and Ngazi area, two communities about 100 kilometers away from the city of Kisangani, which host old industrial sites that will be repurposed for this project.



Despite that electricity generation will be the main use of these plantations, not all trees will serve this purpose. The local community will also be able to use some of them for woodfuel production, reducing pressure on the neighboring forests. “Even if there is electricity available, some families will still use makala for cooking,” explains Van Hulle. “Thus, if they use wood from the plantations, we can avoid the overexplotation of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve.”

Furthermore, the plantations are integrating agroforestry systems, meaning that families are cultivating their crops between lines of trees, which is expected to help restore soil fertility. Some trees will also be used to collect caterpillars and honey, helping improve the food security and nutrition of local communities.

   Women work in FORETS’ nursery in Yangambi, DRC Alex Fassio/ CIFOR


Perhaps the most important benefit of this project is the creation of jobs for locals. Decades of political instability have led to the closure of most industries in the region, and very few formal employment opportunities remain.

From gathering seeds, to planting and taking care of trees, these plantations require manpower at all levels. “We have hired security guards, day laborers, drivers, local technicians, and many more people,” says Van Hulle. “Around 180 men and women have already been employed, and we’re expecting to add another 220 by 2021.” These figures only include the plantations, and it is foreseen that electricity generation will create more jobs, he clarifies.

“Kicking off this project has not been simple,” says Bourland. “Our first challenge was the lack of a qualified workforce”. While in previous times locals had experience in industrial plantations, the present generation was not skilled for most of the required jobs. “We had to train them,” says Van Hulle, “but the results are very satisfying, they are all very motivated and happy to have an income at the end of the day”.

However, despite the good spirits, a few challenges remain. One of the most important is to care for the trees under unpredictable conditions. “The plantations rely on natural rain cycles, so to ensure that there is enough water to help the trees grow we have two planting seasons a year,” explains Van Hulle. “However last year, rains were late, and our trees almost died.” Slash-and-burn agriculture also poses the risk of uncontrolled fires, which means that plantations have to be protected.

Moreover, while access to electricity and job creation are essential to rural development, the region’s economy remains precarious and poor infrastructure limits its potential. This is why FORETS is working to attract private and public investment and to kick-start other income-generating activities in the fields of agriculture, fishing and logging. “These plantations are the first step towards a better future in Yangambi. But we still have a lot of work to do,” concludes Bourland.



This research was supported by the European Union
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